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Professor Dr. Caspar Laing is only thirty years old but has already got the chair of Semitics at Brads university. He speaks Hebrew and Arabic like a native, can read Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke), ancient Greek, even when it's written backwards, and the Hebrew of the Scrolls written thousands of years ago. It's this quality that makes Israeli archaeologist Prof Agrot invite him to come to Israel where a piece of scroll writing has been found that may lead to the hiding-place of the sacred Menorah, the seven-branched lamp.
It's commonly assumed that it was taken to Rome by Titus after destroying the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70. The Triumphal Arch in Rome shows a group of Romans carrying the Menorah through the streets of the capital. But who knows? Maybe they'd only got hold of a copy and the real thing is still hidden somewhere in the Holy Land?
The matter is urgent because the Jordanians have also found a piece of the scrolls. There always used to be three copies of a text, two mentioning the location where something was to be found and one with the information where these two texts were hidden.
Caspar is given a jeep and an assistant, a former brill student of Agrot's, who turns out to be a 22-year-old female of Yemeni origin, currently a lieutenant of the Israeli Army. He's p*ssed about that as he's prone to fly to females in times of stress and she seems an unlikely target what with a behemoth-like fiancé with strict moral rules.
The scroll fragment is vague concerning the location, it's not even clear if they have to look for the geological formation described in the text in the north or in the south of Israel. A wild chase through the country ensues with Caspar trying to think like the writer of the text did aeons ago and unravelling the code in case there is one.
This is the third novel by Lionel Davidson I've read and third he wrote. It was published in 1966. Davidson travelled widely and liked setting his novels in far away places, Kolymsky Height in Siberia, The Rose of Tibet (not surprisingly) in Tibet and The Long Way to Shiloh in Israel where he lived for some time. It must be said that he's a master at evoking extreme landscapes, extreme weather conditions, at creating atmosphere and making his protagonists - intelligent, educated and sportive young men - experience hair-raising, breath-taking adventures with a love story thrown in.
The plots are firmly grounded in the peculiarities of the country in question, in the case of this book this means not only present day Israel (as it was in the 1960s) but more so in ancient Judea. In order to make the reader understand the importance of the Menorah and the urge to find the original Davidson gives a short account of the historic situation in a flippant sort of way. I guess he does this so that non-religious readers may not turn away from his book. When he writes on a certain Joseph ben Matthias, for example, we find this, " In Rome, as a friend of the Jewish comic actor Aliturus, the Danny Kaye of his day, he had gained entry to the swinging circle of Poppea, Caesar's wife..." I'm afraid that this may not help him with readers who aren't believers and proud of knowing nothing about Judaism and Christianity. I have no problems with non-believers, but great problems with people who don't know/understand/care that in our part of the world culture is grounded on the Christian belief if they like it or not.
I remember overhearing an American family in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome some years ago pointing out to each other what they saw in Michaelangelo's pictures at the ceiling. "Look there, a naked man and a naked woman on either side of a tree with a snake wriggled round the trunk. How funny!" I couldn't help myself, I had to open my mouth. When I told them that the two people were Adam and Eve before their eviction from Paradise, they looked at me in admiration and begged me to go on. I'm no specialist in the Old Testament but I told them what I had hitherto thought everyone knew. When we parted, they treated me as if they'd met the Pope's daughter.
Poor sods! How much more pleasure do we derive from works of art if we know the meaning of symbols, metaphors, allusions. Of course, if one needs the translation of a text, it's enough to know that Babelfish is the internet site to go to, but the fact that I know why the site offering many languages has 'Babel' in its name gives me extra pleasure and I feel sorry for everyone who doesn't.
So, back to A Long Way to Shiloh. If you feel it's not your thing to get to know something about the religious roots of the Occident even if the information comes in an action-packed thriller , then the novel may not be for you. There's enough to keep any agnostic on the edge of their seat, but in my opinion something would be lacking.
The length of the novel is just right with 298 pages. As it is also the case in the two other novels by Davidson I've read, the pace quickens the deeper one gets into the story. A Long Way to Shiloh is narrated in the first person perspective by the Prof of Semitics in a dead-pan, witty and occasionally world-weary way. I can recommend the book as a travel companion to Israel, even though it was written nearly half a century ago,